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The logic of a Justin Verlander trade

ESPN’s Buster Olney speculated that the O’s should try and land the veteran righty from the fire sale Mets. The fit is essentially perfect.

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Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It’s already been an active trade season, but the AL East-leading Orioles have been bit players to this point with several holes still to fill. Their starting rotation feels at least one arm light, and the bridge from starter to superstar close Félix Bautista remains a work in progress.

Mike Elias and his front office are notoriously tight-lipped, leaving any rumors coming out of Baltimore to be few and far between. But given the team’s place in the standings, the lack of any clear cut front-runner on the junior circuit, and Baltimore’s wealth of prospects, it just feels like the O’s are primed to make some sort of substantial move.

That led ESPN’s Buster Olney to speculate during the O’s 9-3 win over the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball about a potential move for New York Mets ace Justin Verlander. Olney was clear that he has not heard anything on the O’s chasing Verlander. But the pieces fit together.

The Mets are in sell mode, having already shipped out starter Max Scherzer to the Rangers and closer David Robertson to the Marlins. Verlander could be next. At 40 years of age, the future Hall of Famer is still a viable front-of-the-rotation arm that sports a 3.15 ERA over 94.1 innings this season. And although he does have a full no-trade clause, it’s reasonable to think the Virginia native would waive it to move to Camden Yards, just a three-hour drive from his high school near Richmond.

Verlander would check a few boxes for the Orioles. Most importantly, he’s still really good. After an injury-delayed debut and a poor May, the veteran righted the ship. He’s made seven starts since June 26, and sports a 1.49 ERA in that time with a .178 opponents batting average. He seems to be rounding into his normal excellent form.

Second, he would not be a rental. Verlander is signed through 2024 at least with a vesting option in 2025 that would trigger if he throws 140 innings during the ‘24 campaign. That amounts to a health clause for a pitcher that has been durable for much of his career but had his 2020 and ‘21 seasons stolen by Tommy John surgery.

So, what’s the catch? Two things: money and prospects.

Verlander is still owed about $15 million for the remainder of this season, his entire $43.33 million salary in 2024, and then the $35 million vesting option in 2025.

The Orioles can afford this with no issue. If Spotrac is correct, the O’s current payroll is the second-lowest in baseball, and it would remain well below league average even if they were to add him. While the team will owe arbitration-mandated raises to Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, and others this offseason, the majority of the roster is pre-arbitration and cheap for years to come. Verlander’s contract would be an albatross on many payrolls in the league, but not for these Orioles.

But let’s come back to reality for just a moment. Does taking on more than $90 million in salary commitments over the next 2.5 years feel like something the Orioles would do? Verlander was available on the free agent market this past winter. The Orioles were never reported as suitors then, whether that be due to the high price tag, or perhaps concerns about his health, or the possibility that it was Verlander that was uninterested. A lot can change in seven months, but that would be quite the script flip.

That brings us to the prospect point. The Mets would be right to ask for a rather hefty haul in exchange for Verlander. As mentioned, he’s shown that he can still lead a rotation, and a team would have him for at least one more full season. On top of that, Verlander has done this before. He moved to the Astros in 2017 as a hired gun, helped them win a World Series that year, and then another in 2022. There’s no moment too big for the 18-year veteran.

The quality of prospect headed to Queens would only go up if the Mets were asked to eat some of the salary remaining on Verlander’s deal. That’s what they pulled in the recent Scherzer deal, keeping $35 million due to the righty between this season and next, in order to acquire Double-A infielder Luisangel Acuña. That’s Ronald’s brother and regarded as a top 50-ish prospect in the game.

While the values of Verlander and Scherzer are not 1-to-1 (Verlander is likely worth more), it’s probably not terribly far off either. The Orioles have more than a few intriguing prospects that would be enough to entice the Mets. The bigger question would be more about if the Orioles were finally ready to part with them.

Just this week, Elias reiterated his desire to protect the long-term “health of the organization.” while also admitting that he has the green light to add payroll at the deadline. He spoke about balance and a desire to avoid “set(ting) the minor-league system on fire just because we are in first place.” That sounds like someone willing to make moves, but may not be comfortable getting into blockbuster talks.

On many levels, Verlander would make a lot of sense as an Orioles target. It would represent a significant financial investment into this team, and it would require the front office to loosen their grip on top prospect talent. Elias has noted that both things will need to happen at some point. It’s tough to see a more opportune time than now, leading the AL East going into August with a squad that may flirt with 100 wins as assembled. Adding Verlander to the fold makes a World Series run feel far more attainable.